Why your young student’s class is smaller this year – and who is paying the price

Classrooms on carts: NC class-size rules mean some teachers have no room of their own

North Carolina elementary schools are facing tough choices to find enough classrooms to meet smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes. At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, several elective teachers lost their classrooms and now carry thei
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North Carolina elementary schools are facing tough choices to find enough classrooms to meet smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes. At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, several elective teachers lost their classrooms and now carry thei

Some North Carolina elementary school families may be in for a surprise when they start a new school year Monday and find art and music spaces converted into regular classrooms.

State lawmakers lowered class sizes for kindergarten through third-grade this year by one student. To meet the new requirement, some elementary schools are switching to “art on a cart” in which music and art teachers will bring supplies into classrooms.

Changes at elementary schools will be more widespread in 2018 when average class sizes drop by as much as an additional four students in some grade levels. Wake County will have to create space for the equivalent of 559 classrooms and 9,500 students. Meanwhile, 2,500 additional students in kindergarten through third grade are expected by 2021 in Wake.

Some options that have been mentioned for 2018 in Wake include adding trailers, moving students to schools that have space, changing some schools to a year-round calendar and revamping which grade levels are offered at some elementary schools.

“This is another case where it’s almost that the cure is worse than the disease,” Wake school board member Jim Martin said at a meeting earlier this month. “The alleged reason for this classroom-size legislation was because we wanted better instruction, we wanted smaller class sizes so there could be more opportunities for children, etc. etc.

“The cure is now saying, ‘We’re going to actually have to cram you in because there are not spaces.’ Because there are not spaces your extra opportunities like music and art are going to be restricted.”

But Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County near Charlotte and chairman of the House Education Committee, said people worried about the class-size reductions should calm down and stop spreading “doom and gloom.”

“It seems to me to be more appropriate to sit down together and talk about the various options about what makes sense to meet the needs of the kids rather than the needs of the adults,” he said.

Engineering specialist Stephanie Wright takes her cart through the halls at Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, August 24, 2017. Wright used to have a classroom but because of a new class size requirement, she now visits classrooms with a cart. Ethan Hyman

The controversy began last year when the Republican-led General Assembly inserted into the budget changes that would have sharply lowered K-3 class sizes starting in the 2017-18 school year. State lawmakers said the smaller class sizes would help improve education for young students.

They dropped average K-3 class sizes for school districts from 21 students to between 16 and 18 children, depending on grade level. Legislators also dropped maximum individual K-3 classroom sizes from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level.

School officials around the state charged that the class-size change took away their flexibility to fund art, music and physical education teachers. School leaders warned they might have to lay off thousands of these teachers to come up with the money to hire more K-3 classroom teachers.

Many art, music and physical educators lack the required certification to teach K-3 classes.

In a compromise, state lawmakers agreed to delay most of the K-3 class-size reductions until the 2018-19 school year. Legislators also said they’d look at separately funding art, music and physical education teachers.

“Insisting on continuing this unfunded mandate in the face of this chaos is nonsensical to me,” said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.

Next year, a school that has 25 K-3 classes would have to shift around about 100 seats, forcing school leaders to create roughly six more classes.

Elementary schools are already working this school year under rules that lowered K-3 class sizes to 20 students for districts and 23 students for individual classes. Wake encouraged elementary school principals to keep their K-3 classes at 20 students.

At Sycamore Creek Elementary, a year-round school in Raleigh, principal Kristen Faircloth said she had to search every “nook and cranny” to find enough classrooms.

Sycamore made several changes this year, including converting classrooms for special-education and academically gifted students into regular classrooms. Those teachers are now meeting with students in smaller rooms such as storage closets, which are big enough for a table and a handful of chairs.

Several educators who teach “specials,” such as engineering and math enrichment, lost their classrooms and now carry their supplies on carts. Thirty students from two different classrooms come together.

Faircloth, a member of a committee helping Wake elementary schools come up with options for meeting the new class sizes, said principals are doing their best to make things work.

“Is it ideal? No,” she said. “But it is something that we’re having to do. And we’re still focusing on teaching and learning and making sure that’s taking place as opposed to not at all.”

For 2018, Faircloth is looking at options such as converting the art and music rooms, putting students from different grades into the same classes and having different groups of students share classroom space with two teachers. A Wake survey found some elementary schools have already begun using these options.

Preliminary data show some Wake principals are considering options in 2018 such as moving to art and music on a cart and increasing class sizes in fourth and fifth grades to as many as 32 students. There are no state limits for those grades.

Education advocates say it’s better for art and music teachers to have their own classrooms so they have easier access to supplies and instruments.

“My child having art on a cart for one year will be OK,” said Aaron Marcin, principal of Lead Mine Elementary School in Raleigh. “But if he has five years of modified art instruction and music instruction, now I have concerns about that.”

Renee Sekel, a Cary parent, said families prefer keeping classrooms for art, music and gifted students over reducing class sizes.

“Small class sizes are great, but there’s a way to do it right,” said Sekel, founder of Save Our Schools, a group lobbying for state funding for art, music and physical education teachers. “If the small class sizes come at the expense of space for music and art and (academically gifted) kids then it’s not necessarily worth it.”

Wake is focusing on helping 20 elementary school principals who say they can’t meet the new state requirements next year even with going to art and music on a cart. Possible solutions will be presented at the Sept. 5 school board meeting and could be included as part of the first draft of the 2018-19 student assignment plan that would be released Sept. 19.

A wide range of options have been floated. For instance, some fifth-grade classes could be moved to middle schools that have available space.

Another idea is to have some single-story elementary schools become K-2 campuses since state law requires kindergarten and first-grade students to always be on the ground floor. Those schools could be paired with nearby multistory elementary schools that would be converted to only have third through fifth grades.

“There might be a few things you’ll notice this year,” said Marcin, a member of the Wake committee that will propose options to the school board. “This year is the calm before the storm.

“Next year there will be accommodations being made in schools across our district and more people will be aware of the impact in 2018-19.”

Lawmakers are expecting to get an earful from their local school districts before the 2018 changes go into effect.

Legislators need to take seriously concerns about the difficulty of implementing the class-size reductions, according to Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation.

“If the General Assembly is going to maintain these class-size requirements, then they’re going to have to come to a solution that is beneficial to the school districts, will effectively reduce class sizes for kids and be budget friendly,” he said. “Certainly one of the biggest concerns with reducing class sizes is the budget concerns.

“Finding additional space and hiring additional teachers can be expensive, even if it’s limited to a few grades.”

Horn, the leader of the House Education Committee, agreed that legislators should be talking with school officials about whether adjustments are needed.

“What may need to be done in Wake County may not be the same as what’s needed in Onslow County,” he said. “We need to work together to find a satisfactory solution rather than scream that the sky is falling.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui